Real Life Lessons Prove Why You Really Want to Measure Failure

I have heard from countless communications pros in all kinds of organizations that “nothing ever fails.” I get that: when I was in corporate America, I doubt if I ever bragged about my defeats.

So I now refer to those non-failures as SLW—as in “Succeed Less Well.” Feel free to invent your own acronym. However you’d like to rebrand the Result Formerly Known As Failure, you’ll be surprised at how often it is an experience with value.

Wait. You are probably feeling some reluctance about doing a lot of reading about failure. Don’t. Remember that the motto of most successful entrepreneurs is “Fail Faster.” It means that failure isn’t just worth examining and learning from, but often the key to success. The best example of failing fast in the communications world is digital content folks who constantly do A/B testing to figure out what isn’t working, and then tweak their site content, design, or email strategies. Always be testing.

Measuring failure is a really good idea. Here are a few real-life adventures that demonstrate why:

1. Measuring failure can be very good for your career

To start, heed the tale of one of my very first clients, Donna Coletti, who was then a research program director at Texas Instruments. I asked her how she was using our reports. She replied, “I take them to my boss and point out all the programs that didn’t perform as expected, or were down there at the bottom of the rankings, and I suggest we move resources away from them and put them towards the things that are working.”

As a result, her programs got better and better and she quickly rose up through the ranks to become the Director of International Communications and Market Research for TI. Chalk one up for failure.

2. Measuring failure helps you avoid making huge mistakes

Years ago I was presenting a report to client that was facing serious headwinds from industry analysts and the investment community. Their media coverage was becoming increasingly negative around their financial performance.

The client was busy planning a major press tour for an entirely new technology platform they were rolling out, and barely had time to go over my report. In the few minutes I had, I pointed out the cause of the negative results: quotes from influential analysts who questioned whether the company could financially survive the challenges of launching such a ground-breaking platform. I inquired as to who would be going out on the press tour. They mentioned a senior engineer that was at the heart of the new platform, but who was not well versed in the company’s financials.

I told them it was a train wreck in the making. So they used my data on their image problems to convince the CEO to go out on the press tour along with the technology guru. It turned out to be a spectacular success. Another victory for failure.

3. Measuring failure helps uncover hidden successes

It is almost inevitable that in every presentation I’m asked the question, “What about disasters, how do you measure them?” A number of years ago I got that from the PR guy at the National Wildlife Federation. I asked him to describe a typical “disaster.” He recounted how, in support of NWF’s push to protect open land for endangered species, he had worked for weeks to arrange for a water buffalo to appear on the Conan O’Brien show. It did not go as planned:

Conan’s spectacular bruise aside, I wasn’t convinced that this was as much of a “disaster” as the NWF thought. As it happened, their digital analytics expert was on hand, so I asked her to pull up their results for the 72 hours following the episode. As it turned out, traffic to their website had spiked and generated an unexpected uptick in donations and subscriptions. Failure had proven to be a victory.

I spotted a similar occurrence recently with another client. Their one negative mention in an otherwise wildly successful month was this clip from Jimmy Kimmel Live, making fun of PBS’ Great American Read Survey:

I checked PBS’ digital analytics and found that immediately following that “negative” piece they saw a 22% spike in new unique visitors. Again, what first seemed to be failure was a surprisingly good result.

4. Measuring failure enables you to stop doing stupid stuff

Once upon a time I had a technology client whose team was constantly asked to create press releases around stuff that was very clearly not “news,” e.g., industry wide initiatives, sales wins, etc. These releases took four times longer than the average release to get approved and were universally loathed by everyone on the team. Nonetheless, they had little choice but to execute as ordered.

I went in to present the quarterly results and showed a chart that revealed that industry issues and contract wins were most likely to produce negative messages:

I suggested that they instead focus more on executive interviews, which the data showed were most likely to communicate their positive messages. Fortunately, all the engineers that had been pressuring the comms team to produce dumb press releases were in the room. As we know, engineers understand charts better than words. That was the end of a lot of stupid stuff. #failurewins

(Photo by Ian Kim on Unsplash)


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